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The United States Navy Now Owns A Tablet-Controlled Robot Helicopter

The Office of Naval Research today unveiled what it feels is the future of combat support and transportation - a robotic helicopter. Controlled by a simple touchscreen tablet, the Autonomous Aerial Cargo/Utility System (AACUS) can be sent into missions too perilous for humans with just a few gestures. According to assistant chief of naval research Captain Robert Palisin, AACUS was initially developed in an attempt to create an autonomous helicopter that could do anything a manned helicopter would.

The AACUS system - which can be installed on a wide array of different helicopters - consists of a number of specialized on-board cameras. It uses laser sensors to define its flight path, and is capable of autonomous landing and takeoff. It's capable of avoiding both ground and air-based obstacles, such as telephone poles and wires. In addition to these autonomous capabilities, the system is able to assist a human pilot in challenging conditions, such as attempting a landing in an environment obscured by dust or heavy weather. 

The most important feature of the system, though? 

It requires no specialized training to use. Virtually any soldier can pick up the system and start working with it in a manner of minutes. During the initial testing phases of the device, the ONR found that soldiers with no prior experience could successfully make use of the systems within only fifteen minutes of picking it up. That's actually pretty huge, and goes a long way towards ensuring AACUS's affordability.

"What we're developing here is a system that responds to a request in the field for supplies, develops its own route, flies there by itself without any oversight and comes in and selects its own landing sites," explained AACUS program manager Max Snell. "This is a truly autonomous design." 

The ONR was originally created based, of all things, on Amazon's drone-assisted delivery system. According to Snell, they were effectively trying to do the same thing, except that instead of DVDs or clothing, they'd be delivering batteries, bullets, or water to a marine in the field. So far, it's looking like the project has been a roaring success - though I suspect it's yet to see deployment in an actual combat situation. 

The tablets that operate AACUS are both hardware and operating-system agnostic; "the user interface was designed to be platform-agnostic, so it could be used with a broad array of aircraft," explained ONR spokesperson Peter Vietti.

AACUS was developed over a five-year period, and should see full deployment within the year. In the long-term, Snell said, his team wants to get the system to the point where it's capable of doing medical or casualty evacuation. Beyond that, well...

I wouldn't honestly be surprised to see this project laying the groundwork for truly autonomous aerial combat vehicles. I'm not just talking drones, either; I'm referring to fully-functional, flying combat robots, capable of assisting in pretty much any situation they'd encounter. While on the one hand, such technology would be an incredible leap forward (and lead to a significant reduction in the loss of human life), on the other it's a bit of a terrifying thought; the notion that the battlefields of the future might be entirely mechanized makes one wonder what sort of power that gives the one holding the remote control.